As I mentioned in my post yesterday, the review committee of the 2011 edition of the ESV can be seen discussing how they translate terms to do with slavery (see here [edit – it is also available on YouTube]). Given their openness to the TV cameras, it would be interesting to know if they intend to publish their reasons for changes made. This is because the change on which they vote and agree at the end seems most surprising.

The vote is on how to translate doulos in 1 Cor 7:21-23. Almost all modern English Bibles, including previous editions of the ESV, translate this as slave. However, the committee decide to change this to ‘bondservant’ in the 2011 edition (see here). I find this a strange decision for a number of reasons:

  1. In 1 Cor 7:15, they have translated the cognate verb as ‘enslaved’. I think this is the right translation, but if they can stomach it here in relation to marriage (!), why not six verses later when the actual institution of slavery is in mind?
  2. In 1 Cor 12:12, they have translated douloi as ‘slaves’, probably because of the opposing eleutheroi. Yet we have this same combination of terms in 7:21.
  3. Bondservant is an archaic term which hardly makes the meaning plainer to the average reader.
  4. Although dictionaries suggest that ‘bondservant’ is synonymous with ‘slave’, as far as I know, it is not the same. The former represents so-called ‘debt slavery’ (or similar forms of bonded labour), while the latter is ‘chattel slavery’. In the former, the individual sells their labour whereas in the latter, they sell themselves (in neither case should this necessarily be taken to imply that it is the slave’s decision). This distinction can be seen in the Torah’s different approach to Hebrews and non-Hebrews who are enslaved, although the ESV there uses the term ‘slave’ for each. But by the 1st century CE, doulos had become the most common word to refer to a chattel slave. What evidence did the reviewers have that supported this different kind of slavery here?

I worry when I see translations of doulos other than ‘slave’, that we are hiding from the reader some of the hardness of the text and the reality of the ancient world. I’m not sure this is the intention here, and to be fair to the reviewers, the footnote says that doulos might refer to slaves, and refers the reader to a preface to which I do not have access. Perhaps all would become clear if I could read that. Moreover, in general, the ESV is an improvement on many versions since it regularly translates doulos as ‘slave’. This makes the review committee’s decision all the more surprising. If this is true elsewhere, why not here?